“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)

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One thought on ““You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

  1. Pingback: Elvish Escapism | The Flame Imperishable

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